“Choosing Sides,” Tambuli, Oct. 1993, 7
Stewart woke up with an intense feeling of dread. It was Friday—dodgeball day in gym class. His stomach was already tying itself in knots. He ate no breakfast, and he was mostly silent while his mom drove him to school.
First period was art class, his favorite. He liked it because it was something he could do well. He also liked it because he didn’t have to compete with anyone. There was no winner, no loser, just everyone doing his very best. That’s fair, he thought.
Second period was English, a class that Stewart would have really enjoyed if it were not right before gym. He loved to read. It was a grand adventure to let his imagination whisk him off to faraway places. But today, just as he got into a story and started enjoying it, he remembered that in less than an hour he would be in his gym shorts and sneakers, waiting for all the other boys to be chosen for teams. Then someone would finally say, “Oh, great—I guess we’re stuck with Stewart!” He hated that part even worse than the actual playing of the game. Naturally, the biggest, most athletic boys were chosen first; Stewart understood that, but he didn’t understand why they had to make fun of him just because he didn’t play as well.
Third period came. Stewart walked across the football field to the gymnasium, dreading even the musky smell of the locker room. He and the other boys dressed quickly and took their places on the gym floor; the coaches didn’t like to be kept waiting.
“Line up; it’s dodgeball day,” Coach Warden shouted. “We need some team leaders!”
Stewart kicked at the chipped lines painted on the old gymnasium floor, wishing that the period was over and that he was eating lunch. He was startled when Coach Warden called his name—he had never been called on to choose a team before!
Soon he and three other boys were standing in a line facing the group. Then Coach Warden walked over, “Stewart, you go first.”
Immediately most of the boys began the usual ritual of jumping up and down, waving their hands, and yelling, “Me! Me! Me!” Dan just stood there with his arms folded across his chest. He didn’t have to jump up and down; he was the best athlete in the whole school and was always chosen first. He told Stewart, “Go ahead—pick me, and I’ll pick the rest of the team for you.” When Stewart hesitated, Dan looked puzzled. “Pick me—you know I’m the best.”
The entire gymnasium became silent in disbelief when Stewart said, “I choose Craig.”
Craig stepped forward with a look of amazement that turned into a big grin. “I’ve never been first pick before.” He had always been chosen just before Stewart—next to last.
The other team leaders made their first choices. When it was Stewart’s turn again, a pin could have been heard dropping as he called out, “Andy.” Andy had usually been chosen just before Craig.
At each subsequent turn, Stewart went on going up the ladder instead of down, choosing boys who were usually “assigned,” rather than chosen. The other team leaders chose the best athletes, as usual.
For the first time, Stewart enjoyed the game. His team came in last, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that every boy on the team felt wanted.
After the game, the boys went to change clothes. Stewart was tying his shoelaces when Dan towered over him and taunted him, “I told you to pick me. But you wouldn’t do it. You’re nothing but a loser.”
“Dan!” It was the authoritative voice of the coach. “Stewart is many things, but a loser certainly isn’t one of them.” Coach Warden made Dan apologize, sent him and the other boys on to class, then turned to Stewart. “I want to thank you.”
“Huh? What for?”
Coach Warden sat down on the bench, motioning Stewart to sit beside him. “For reteaching me a very important lesson. You see, whenever there’s competition, there has to be a winner and a loser. Everyone wants to be a winner, and nobody wants to be a loser. Today the other team leaders were thinking only about winning, so they chose the best athletes. You were more concerned with the boys themselves, with their feelings. It would’ve been very easy for you to have picked Dan and let him put together the winning team for you. But you didn’t. You were brave enough to choose those whom the others considered losers. But you were the real winner today, Stewart, and so were your teammates. I’m very proud of you.”
The coach walked with Stewart to the door, then went into his office and made a list of all of the boys. He cut the names out on individual strips of paper and threw them into a baseball cap, ready for picking the next day’s teams.